Feminist TheoryEssay by Kimberley Cox, Ph.D.
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toward debunking the prevailing explanations of sex differences,which rested on biological determinants rather than principles of social organization (Anderson, 2005).
Criticisms of Functionalism
Early feminist scholar’s criticisms of functionalism centered onits interpretations of the family. The fundamentalist idea thatexpressive and instrumental roles in the family were divided
between the genders was ercely challenged (Anderson, 2005).
Feminist Contributions to Sociological Theory
During the twenty year period spanning the early 1970s to 1990s,feminist thought swept through sociology and the percentage of
women in the eld grew dramatically (Thorne, 2006). Feministtheory has continued to ourish since the 1970s; the section on sex
and gender has become the largest research division of the Ameri-can Sociological Association (Thorne, 2006). Consequently, thereis much theoretical work in sociology that has been produced as aresult of feminism and the women’s movement, and these contribu-tions have transformed thinking in the discipline.Indeed, feminist scholarship has offered an abundance and vari-ety of valuable theoretical insights, critiques, and concepts thathave contributed to the understanding of the social world (Alway,
1995; Chafetz, 1997). Wallace (1989) identied four main theo
-retical contributions of feminism on sociology:Critique and reevaluation of existing sociological
theories,Discovery of new concepts and topics,
Interdisciplinary linkages, and
A new sociological paradigm.
The following paragraphs elaborate on each of thesecontributions.
Critique & Reevaluation of Existing Sociological Theories
The main target of feminist criticism has been sociology’s pre-vailing functionalist theory, and, in particular, Talcott Parsons’swork on the family. At the center of this critique are Parsons’scategorization of role expectations and the structure of relation-ships, which tended to view women’s roles as predominatelyexpressive, and men’s as instrumental. Feminists also generallycriticized Parsons’s theory of gender socialization as oppressivefor both genders, but particularly so for women.Marxist class theory was also met with feminist criticism. Sociolo-
gist Joan Acker (1989), for example, criticized Marx for dening
the economy from the perspective of the male-dominated rulingsystem. Chafetz (1997) adds that male domination or patriarchyis fostered by the capitalist system, which supports and sustainsfemale oppression within the household and in the labor market.Marxist-inspired feminist theory, often referred to today as social-ist-feminist theory, differs from traditional Marxism by insistingthat nonwaged labor, which is done overwhelmingly by women, is just as important as waged labor (Chafetz, 1997). Chafetz arguesthat socialist-feminists demonstrate that gender is as fundamentalas class in understanding oppression and exploitation in capital-ist systems and that for women, oppression/exploitation resultsequally from patriarchy and from class structure, not simply as aconsequence of class relationships.Feminist scholars also critiqued sociology’s macrostructural the-ories. As a result, most of the macrostructural-inspired feministtheories focus on the central role of the gender division of labor within the economy. The more responsibility women have in the private or domestic domain, the less equal their opportunitiesin the economic system, whereas the more equal the access of women to economic roles in the public domain, the lower theamount of gender inequality (Chafetz, 1997). Important insightsfrom macrostructural feminist theories demonstrate that thegender system has implications for nearly all aspects of socio-cultural structure.Chodorow (1978) incorporated object relations theory into her revisions of Freudian thought to account for gender differencesand inequality. Chodorow contends that because women areoverwhelmingly responsible for early childrearing, children of both sexes have a female as their primary love object. However,the Oedipal stage experiences of boys’ and girls’ are very differ-ent because only girls share the sex of their primary love object.Another scholar, Carol Gilligan (1982), countered Kohlberg’s prevailing theory of moral development using Chodorow’stheory. Gilligan argued that women’s morality is different from, but not inferior to, men’s morality because it is based on personalrelationships rather than abstract principles. These two works arewidely cited by feminist sociologists.
Discovery of New Concepts & Topics
Chodorow’s (1978) groundbreaking work, The Reproduc-tion of Mothering, provided new insight on male socialization.Chodorow argues that boys view themselves as different from
their mothers with whom they have had their rst emotional rela
-tionships, and thus, repress their emotions and female qualitiesin order to achieve their individuated male identities. Girls, incontrast, strongly and continuously identify with their mothersand thus, accept their emotions and female qualities. As a result,males tend to see the feminine as inferior. Another example is thework of Rosabeth Moss Kanter (1977). Kanter’s observationsand immersion in the daily lives of women working in smallnumbers in corporations led to the concept of tokenism.
Feminist scholars have a keen interest in interdisciplinary link-ages. Feminist sociological theorists tend to actively reach across
discipline boundaries to engage scholars from such diverse elds
as economics, political science, history, literature, philosophy,anthropology, and psychology (Wallace, 1989).
A New Sociological Paradigm
Though still in its infancy, feminist thought served as a catalystfor the formation of a “new sociological paradigm” (Wallace,1989). According to Stacey and Thorne (1985), a paradigm con-